Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp), a schoolteacher in Washington Irving's original story, is re-imagined as a crime scene investigator embracing new technologies on the eve of a new century in 1799. He's sent from New York City to the small upstate village of Sleepy Hollow where there's been a report of three men being decapitated.
Crane arrives to find there are actually five victims, including a woman and her unborn baby killed in the womb. The villain behind these crimes has also taken the heads of the victims with him. This is when the locals tell Ichabod the story of the Headless Horseman, a Hessian mercenary killed in the Revolutionary War who has come back from the dead. Ichabod doens't believe the tale, believing the heads were stolen by a human perpetrator to prevent the identification of the bodies. Both stories turn out to be somewhat true?
This is a real mangling of the original story and a lot of different plots are set up, too many really. There is a plot amongst the town elders involving some inheritance of money that was being diverted to one of the victims who was killed so the money can go to someone else, and everyone who knew about the plot was being killed by the Horseman, who is a real supernatural entity under someone else's control. But the person controlling the Horseman has a revenge motive that has nothing to do with the money ... or does it? There is also some switching of bodies and heads to confuse the investigators and I got a little lost in the proceedings.
I haven't read the original story, but I believe the plot was fairly closely followed by the Disney animated version which I reviewed previously.
In that one Ichabod is vying with burly townie Brom Bones for the affection of Katrina. Brom uses the story of the Horseman to scare Ichabod and later Ichabod is run out of town by the Horseman. You're left wondering if he's a real ghost or Brom in disguise.
In this version there is a Brom Bones (Casper Van Dien) but he barely gets a line in the first half of the story. He does indeed dress up like the Horseman to scare Ichabod which doesn't work. When the Horseman turns out to be real, Brom disappears until the final act when he and Ichabod fight the demon together. There is also a Katrina (Christina Ricci) who favors Ichabod over Brom until he accuses her father of being involved in the inheritance plot, which he is.
Then there's a demonic tree, a pair of evil witches, and more misdirection. There's just too much plot.
It's a shame really because the art direction is fantastic. The cast is pretty good, featuring some of Tim Burton's regulars; Johnny Depp, of course, and Michael Gough (Alfred from the Batman movies), Lisa Marie, and a cameo from Christopher Lee. I think in hindsight I wish Tim Burton had just been an art director on movies rather than a director. This needed someone to whip the script into shape and use the actors a little better than they were.
The idea presented in the first half that all the crimes are done by humans and not supernatural in nature should have been carried through further, and the reveal that magic was real shown later. It's not even the appearance of the Headless Horseman that reveals magic to Ichabod, but one of the witches who is only there to deliver exposition and then for some reason makes her eyes pop out of her zombie face at the camera. There are a lot of effects popping right towards the camera which makes me think this was originally a 3D movie but I can't find anything about that being true. This did not come out during one of the 3D crazes.
This is worth a watch just for the visuals, but it is not a modern classic.